Integration and business processes meet in BizTalk roadmap

Colleen Frye

At last month's TechEd conference, Microsoft disclosed further details on its roadmap for BizTalk Server, its business process management (BPM) server. The system is expected to evolve to include the core foundational technology of Windows Workflow Foundation, a framework for building workflows into Microsoft Windows applications, and Windows Communication Foundation (WCF), a communications infrastructure built around the Web services architecture.

Among the goals of upcoming BizTalk Server releases is to provide a better fit with the .NET 3.0 'stack.

Business processes span from collaborative and semi-structured human processes to human-to-machine processes to machine-to-machine processes. "The industry historically has focused on the two extremes" of collaborative and transactional, said Oliver Sharp, general manager in the Connected Systems Division at Microsoft Corp. "You have to bring the two together, so there is a lot of activity happening in the middle."

Among this activity is a coming together of enterprise application integration (EAI), B2B, BPM, business activity monitoring (BAM), ESBs, and so on, Sharp said. He said the eventual coming together and transformation of the "middle tier" is analogous to the DBMS space and the creation of the database server. "It's all coming together in a business process server," he said. "We are in the middle of another transformation in the increasing way people are expressing intent through metadata."

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The vision for this middle tier server, Sharp said, is based on a declarative model for business logic, process, and rules, with integrated communication and integrated business user capabilities.

"In the good ol' days, integration and business process were separate things," said Ron Schmelzer, a senior analyst at ZapThink LLC in Waltham, Mass. "We did EAI as one activity and BPM as another. However, SOA [service-oriented architecture] unites the concepts of integration and process." Schmelzer sees the industry-wide interest in SOA leading to unification of architecture, integration, and process.

Schmelzer continued, "Many of the so-called ESB vendors are adding process orchestration capabilities to their products and BPM vendors are increasingly service-enabling their offerings. It's just a matter of time before all the major platform vendors offering SOA capabilities will also have process capabilities."

R2 in the wings

A next step on this road be the BizTalkServer 2006 R2 release, expected the second half of 2007. (BizTalk 2006 was just released this March). The R2 release will include native support for electronic data interchange (EDI) and AS2, as well as a new set of services for developing and managing radio frequency identification (RFID) solutions. BizTalk Server 2006 R2 will also broaden its support for platform technologies such as the 2007 Microsoft Office system and Windows Vista. The R2 release will also provide an adapter framework on top of WCF.

"R2 says some interesting things," said David Chappell, principal of Chappell & Associates in San Francisco. "The focus on supporting RFID is interesting; they're going in the direction where the market is going." And, he added, "having BizTalk adapters start to merge with what WCF provides makes sense."

The release after R2 will move BizTalk to a native Windows Workflow Foundation core engine, according to Burley Kawasaki, Group Product Manager, BizTalk Server Product Management. Once both SharePoint and BizTalk Server are both based on Windows Workflow, they will have a common run-time. However, with BizTalk Server 2006 R2 and SharePoint 2007, customers can realize connected workflows and end-to-end tracking, according to Microsoft.

The themes for these next releases of BizTalk, Sharp said, are to "make it easier to use our own stack," federated processes, and the enhancement of next-generation development on the platform through mashups, corporate applications, and creating richer experiences. "Everything is becoming service-oriented and made available through standard interfaces," he said.

Better links to SharePoint

The move to common foundational technology "will link BizTalk more easily to SharePoint or Office," said Shawn Willett, principal analyst, application infrastructure, at Current Analysis Inc. in Washington, D.C. "Right now they can be linked, but they remain two separate engines. It's a good strategy, but it will take a while," he said.

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Learn more about Microsoft's vision of SOA and integration

Microsoft's vision of tighter integration is "based on running Office and BizTalk and SharePoint," Willett said. "There is a world out there where there will be lot of Java and mainframe applications. Personally, one of things that would help them is to focus more in interoperability and recognize there's a lot of Java out there. Right now their answer is WS* standards, but I'm not sure that's enough."

Going forward, expect to see Microsoft advancing the notion of a process server, and expect to hear more about business process modeling and "the business analyst as key persona," Kawasaki said. Once software is able to execute on business models, the results will be "transformational," said Kawasaki."

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